“Reasonable people disagree.”

The fact that there is now going to be a “debate” over birthright citizenship is incredibly dangerous. Prior to Trump’s gesture toward eliminating it with an executive order, it was essentially a self-evident American value and institution. Indeed, most people I have talked to without a special interest in the issue have been surprised to learn that other countries don’t have birthright citizenship. Now, however, there is suddenly a “controversy,” and that means that “both sides” have to be treated with equal respect. Given the composition of American political elites, the “sides” will most likely be people who think we should mostly keep birthright citizenship but who admit that “anchor babies” are a problem and people who think we need to eliminate the system altogether.

This isn’t a total hypothetical. I’m old enough to remember when we suddenly had a “national conversation” about torture. As soon as the idea of the legitimacy of torture had the slightest toehold in the national discourse, every staged “debate” was oriented toward extorting torture opponents into admitting that there were some circumstances where it was warranted. Hence the infamous “ticking time bomb” scenarios. You see, absolute opposition to torture was an extreme position that couldn’t possibly be right — the truth had to be “somewhere in the middle.” And when the American people repudiated Bush and the Republicans to a degree unprecedented in the last forty years, Mr. Moderation himself decided that it was time to look forward and not backward and didn’t prosecute any of those well-intentioned patriots who let themselves get carried away and wound up doing a few regrettable things. And you have to admit, don’t you, that they kept us safe!

And I’m worried the same thing will happen here — that birthright citizenship will be permanently damaged by the very existence of this sham debate between the constitutional status quo ante of the last century and a half and this new idea that just popped into Trump’s head, both of which are equally legitimate “sides” in the brilliant “debate” that the media will be so proud of themselves for covering so even-handedly.

In reality, if we must have rights based on citizenship, clear and unambiguous standards like birth in the national territory are the only way to go. Do you want some government bureaucrat to be in a position to strip you of citizenship because the paperwork was wrong? There is no good outcome if we go down this road, just like there was no good outcome from opening up the question of torture. The extreme position is the correct one. But once you have to say it, the unquestionable norm is already gone and the damage is done.

Our post-apocalyptic condition

I have often joked that I would be willing to write a regular opinion column whose sole purpose is to remind people that George W. Bush existed. The Bush years were when I first became politically aware, and I remain deeply scarred by them, and deeply offended by how quickly those horrific events have been forgotten or explained away.

I’m not even thinking of the fact that Bush himself has become a kind of “cute grandpa” in media presentation. It’s less about Bush the man and more about the absolute disaster he unleashed upon the world. He presided over the worst foreign attacks on US soil since Pearl Harbor and the worst financial crises since the Depression. He left a great city to die. He introduced chaos and destruction into a whole region of the world, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths and and global refugee crisis. He undid the tenuous progress toward action on climate change and virtually made climate denialism a pillar of Republican ideology in a way it had never quite been before.

In short, he blighted untold lives and contributed materially to the odds of human extinction. And what is most horrifying, perhaps, is that — for some of us at least, those with a certain level of privilege and security — it was all survivable. Things “went back to normal,” even if the new normal was an institutionalization of Bush’s state of exception. The fact that people can even argue that Trump is worse than Bush is a sign of the deep amnesia of American life. What does Trump want to do that even could be worse than the Iraq War? What does he want to do that is a greater crime against humanity than setting up torture camps all around the world? It is not promising, in this respect, that the one thing that may indeed be worse than a similar action by Bush — his abandonment of Puerto Rico in the wake of the hurricane — is the thing that has gotten the least attention.

Maybe he will turn out to be worse than Bush, and maybe that will turn out to be — again, for some of us — survivable. But the utter lack of any historical sense among American elites means that settling into a permanently worse condition can feel like “getting back to normal.” We can just keep waiting it out, keep letting the system work, keep on surviving — but mere survival cannot save us from the extinction-level event that is coming, and in many ways has already come.

On civil war

Ever since Reagan, Republicans view any branch of government they have ever controlled as their birthright. Clinton and Obama were illegitimate in their eyes because the Republicans own the presidency. The same goes, but even more, for the Supreme Court. Media commentary seems bizarrely fixated on the idea that the Republicans are just now securing control of the Supreme Court, but they have actually held a majority for most of our lifetimes — secured in part by appointments from Republican presidents installed against the popular will. In reality, Democrats had their first shot at a majority in almost a generation, and the thought of allowing that was so unthinkable that the Republicans were basically willing to burn down everything. And the media went along with it as a case of “political hardball,” rather than the unprecedented insult to the American people it really was.

This points to a deeper crisis in our system. You can’t have a party-based representative democracy when one of the parties refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other party. The premise is that you alternate power and each party has the right to implement its agenda while in power. Republicans reject that premise. For them, any Democratic president or congressional majority is a state of absolute emergency. The number of Republicans willing to engage in traditional horse-trading politics while in the minority has dwindled sharply, while there are plenty of Democrats willing to play ball — Joe Manchin, most dramatically, but also many others who have voted for Trump cabinet and court appointees on the principle that the president has a right to appoint people who share his views, as long as they are otherwise qualified. Republicans refuse to even consider a Democratic Supreme Court nominee who would change the partisan balance, while many Democrats happily voted for the boring conservative who was nominated for the “stolen” seat and only mounted serious opposition when Kavanaugh turned out to have a cloud of sexual abuse and violent alcoholism in his past. And again, Republicans treated these reasonable concerns as an unprecedented outrage — because they own the court.

At this point, by continuing to play along with the system as it exists, Democrats objectively exist to give procedural cover for Republican rule. And it’s not clear to me how to break out of that pattern, because the public discourse is so systematically corrupt and false. Republican voters have been so brainwashed to believe that the Democrats secretly control everything that they are effectively inoculated against the idea that Republicans are rigging the system. The mainstream media has no interest in dispelling these illusions. Even if the Democrats managed to thoroughly delegitimate the Republicans in the eyes of their own base, they have no means to exercise institutional power — and hence they would only provide further justification to the Republican habit (accelerated under Trump) of governing only on behalf of their “base” and viewing the opposition party and public opinion with contempt.

Like many, I find the idea of delegitimating the Republicans and, with them, the whole Constitutional system deeply appealing. But in the absence of a plausible alternative with a claim to popular legitimacy, delegitimizing the system creates a situation where force decides, and I think we all know who would win if push came to shove. Yet surely there comes a point when the attempt to avoid civil war becomes a way of conceding victory in advance. Perhaps push has already come to shove — but in that case, it is very unclear how to proceed. Electoral victory is one option, but the Republicans have already primed their base to reject the validity of election results.

The last time our country was on the brink of civil war, the slavers had a stranglehold on institutional power and the terms of debate and yet continually viewed themselves as oppressed victims — and as soon as an opposition president took office, they decided to blow up the country rather than accept his victory. Like contemporary Democrats, Lincoln was conciliatory to a fault, but the slavers would not take yes for an answer. Lincoln was, of course, actually able to become president in the first place despite the slavers’ opposition. If a Democrat won the 2020 election, would they even be able to take office? Would Republicans control enough state-level governments to steal the Electoral College outright? And then what?

Whiteness is the crisis

A lot of times, when governments do horrible things, they can point to some kind of crisis. Maybe there is a war or insurgency going on. Maybe they are in the midst of an economic collapse. Maybe there is a major crime wave underway. In those kinds of circumstances, government officials feel entitled and even obligated to take extreme measures to get things back to normal. Sometimes they use the crisis to do something they wanted to to anyway, as with the Iraq War, but sometimes they are acting out of genuine fear and panic.

What we are seeing at the border today is not like that. The U.S. is in a state of undeclared war around the world, as it almost always is, but there is no substantial foreign threat to the U.S. mainland and no attempt to even claim that there is one. There are still economic problems, most notably wage stagnation, but unemployment is very low, the stock market is still booming, and the Global Financial Crisis is ten years in the rearview window. There is no evidence of an increase in attempted undocumented border crossings, nor of any crime wave associated with undocumented immigrants — just the opposite, in fact, as immigrants commit fewer crimes per capita than good old native-born Americans. Nor are we coming off a period of lax enforcement of immigration law, as Obama (shamefully, in my view) stepped up deportations to an extreme degree. And yet here we are, witnessing children, even infants, being torn from their parents for what amounts to a minor misdemeanor.

From any reasonable viewpoint, this policy is completely gratuitous cruelty. Yet from the unreasonable viewpoint of the racists in charge of our federal government there is an emergency underway: the U.S. is in danger of losing its white identity. Continue reading “Whiteness is the crisis”

The Decline of the West

In the New York Times, David Leonhart worries that Trump is consciously attempting to destroy the West. Now I have no great affection for the Western alliance or the global free trade regime — and in any case, the Bush years teach us that neither can do much to restrain US excesses. So I could see a kneejerk case to root for Trump’s bull-in-a-China-shop routine.

The problem is that Trump is trying to construct a world order that doubles down on everything that is worst about the NATO-IMF-World Bank regime and gets rid of even the faintest illusion that some kind of ideals may be remotely involved in any of it. You may say that the Trump version has the virtue of being honest, but I wonder how “refreshing” or “clarifying” that honesty feels to the inmate of an ICE concentration camp.

It’s similar to the delusion of a left-wing version of Brexit — it’s not that I am rooting for the EU as such, but the people who are in a position to administer the alternative are psychotic austerians who want to use “freedom” from the EU to brutalize immigrants and turn the UK into an open-air work camp for the poor.

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Donald Trump

Next term, I am planning to use selections from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire in Shimer’s senior capstone course, and yesterday I spent some time working through the text. Part of my motivation in using it is obviously its contemporary relevance in the Trumpocene — something that many others have picked up on, particularly given the uncanny coincidence that Election Day was (at least by some reckonings) the Eighteenth Brumaire. As the apparent coiner of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Sarah Palin, I felt I should weigh in on this important cultural reference.

Aside from the fact that Trump is as ridiculous and incompetent as Louis Napoleon, I think the core parallel between the two events is that each exposes the truth of the state in their respective eras. For Marx, Louis Napoleon exposes the fact that the bourgeoisie cannot coherently wield the power of the state, which stands as a power over against them. In our era, I would suggest that Trump exposes the limits to the neoliberal state, which tends to become a purely coercive apparatus whose sole goal is to guarantee capitalist profitability. The fact that Trump’s instinct for cruelty finds such easy outlets — above all in brutalizing immigrant populations — is evidence of this truth, and the fact that he can use the state as a platform for his petty resentments and crackpot schemes demonstrates that there really is no “there” there. The fantasy of the Deep State filled with principled public servants serving the public good is precisely that, a fantasy. To the extent that the American state apparatus ever had something like the public good in mind, that ethos has been systematically destroyed. Trump’s open profiteering is one logical endpoint of the development that has been underway since Reagan and even before.

Even “progressive” neoliberalism is caught in this bind. Obamacare is exemplary here, as its key innovation was to expand access to health care by coercing people into supporting the profitability of the hated private insurance companies. From one perspective, their profits were capped by the law; from another, they were encoded as an entitlement. The other two prongs of the attack were to coerce private employers into providing health insurance (unless they were not large enough to do this while maintaining profitability) and to strongarm the states into expanding Medicaid (which has increasingly become a disciplinary apparatus rather than a public support program). Seemingly the entire thing was engineered to prevent the direct provision of health insurance by the one level of government that was in a position to finance it. And when the Great Recession backed Obama into a corner, forcing him to use Keynesian stimulus techniques, he tried to render it as invisible as possible — providing “stealth” tax cuts that people wouldn’t notice (ostensibly so that they would spend it routinely rather than treat it as a windfall) and financing only “shovel-ready” projects that had already been planned. It’s as though the fact that government spending could be directly beneficial was an embarrassment that must be hidden from the people — presumably because awareness of the possibility of collective economic action independent of “the market” would undercut labor discipline and the profitability of capitalist firms.

My hope is that the lesson we can draw from the Trump era is that the left will give up the easy opposition between “the state” and “the market,” as though it is inherently progressive to favor the former over the latter. Trump shows that there is no inherently progressive impulse behind state power — perversely enough, we must now look to the corporate world for any institutional progressive gains in the coming years. A real transformation will not consist of favoring one side of the state/market, political/economic dyad over the other, but by refusing the distinction and rethinking from the bottom up the form and goals of the institutions we need to organize our collective life.

How will we know it’s over?

The Trump budget proposal is a nightmare — petty and vindictive, short-sighted and cruel. Inexpensive programs that literally save lives are being cut, apparently out of sheer spite. Surely, we are in the terminal phases of what I once called the society of go fuck yourself. Why do we need a travel ban? Why do we need to turn away refugees? The official reason is that they may pose a threat, but surely the real reason is that they are not our problem, so they can go fuck themselves. Similarly, why do we need to build a wall to keep out the Mexicans? Supposedly they’re stealing our jobs, leeching off our public services, and committing crimes. But come on: the real reason is that we don’t owe them anything and they can go fuck themselves.

All of these programs will thwart human potential at best and kill people at worst. Any idiot can draw those consequences, and my personal experience “interacting” with them has taught me that the license for cruelty is part of the libidinal charge of Trumpism for the most hardened followers. They will follow him to their death if he lets them hurt the people they hate along the way. The amount of pent up resentment and ugliness he has brought out into the open has already been more corrosive to our frayed social fabric than we can fully grasp.

But I still find myself holding out a small sliver of hope. Namely, I hope they don’t start publicly saying that the poor, elderly, and disabled should just die if they can’t fend for themselves. That is the logical implication of everything they’re doing. The most charitable spin is that they don’t want those people to die, but don’t actually care if they do. That’s where we objectively are as a nation, under the leadership of a cruel and vindictive man who has never let anyone trick him into doing anything kind or beneficial in his entire sick parody of a human life.

If they say it, though, that’s the end. Yes, people will recoil in outrage. Republicans who are only 95% right wing instead of 300% will distance themselves. Elzabeth Warren will get some good tweets out of it. But it’s a funny thing: once it appears on the CNN scroll, it’s a part of the public debate. It’s one position among others for the talking heads to debate. A society in which “the poor should just die” is one position among others — even if it’s an unpopular position that people argue passionately against! — is no longer a society. It’s a death camp waiting to happen.